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Aurora Batman Shooting: Gun Control, Self-Defense, and Constitutional Rights

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In the wake of the July 20th shooting at the Aurora, Colorado Batman release, many people are left wondering how such a tragedy could have ever happened.  The incident has given rise to so many different responses, in which people try to understand what could have led to such a tragic event, and how it might be prevented in the future.

For those of you who haven’t yet heard, James Holmes is being charged with 24 counts of murder after he opened fire in a movie theater during the midnight opening showing of The Dark Knight Rises.  Armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, handguns, and smoke bombs, he killed 12 people and injured well over 50 others.

For the most part, the discussion around the shooting involves talk about reforming gun laws.  Most specifically, many argue that the state of Colorado needs to rework its gun laws, especially when you consider that the 1999 Columbine incident was also in Colorado.  Almost immediately after the Aurora shooting, people began questioning whether we need stricter gun control law, especially when it comes to letting ordinary civilians obtain the military-type assault weapons that Holmes had used.

On the flip side of the gun control debate is the argument that no amount of gun control and restrictions could prevent the type of incident that happened in Aurora.  After all, won’t criminals break the law regardless of what punishments they may face?  Won’t criminals be able to get guns illegally anyways, regardless of state or local gun laws?  Add to that the fact that Holmes was also being treated for psychiatric issues, and it becomes questionable whether gun control laws can actually prevent violent shootings.

Many are saying that it’s not really a lack of gun control that is the problem here, but rather the idea that we live in a “death-obsessed culture”, one where we are exposed to violent killings all the time in media and in video games, desensitizing us to such behavior.

Legally speaking, Americans do have the right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.  In addition to constitutional rights, many criminal laws allow the use of force when it comes to self-defense.  However the common factor with most self-defense and gun ownership laws is that a person is only allowed to respond with a like amount of force, or a “reasonably proportionate” amount of force. For example, if an aggressor engages me with a deadly weapon (such as a knife or a gun), then for the most part I’m entitled to respond with deadly force as well.

But if the person is simply engaging me with fisticuffs for an old-fashioned brawl, I probably can’t use deadly force or a deadly weapon to defend myself.   If I introduce a knife or a gun in a fistfight, there is even risk that I might held liable for violent crime, for using too much force than is necessary to for self-defense.

And so now here’s my question- with the sheer amount of gear that the gunman James Holmes had, what type of “self-defense” would he have been trying to prepare for?  Is it ever justifiable under a self-defense theory for a person to be packing that much ammunition?  Supreme Court cases like District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) protect the right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, like self-defense within the home, not for attacks on unsuspecting citizens.  What I’m saying is that if a person has a whole apartment full of high-capacity guns, explosives, and bullet-proof gear like Holmes did, they probably outside the scope of the intent of most criminal self-defense laws.  And of course, Holmes wasn’t even acting in self-defense.

Lastly, there are some reports that after witnessing some of his erratic behavior, Holmes’ psychiatrist had warned others before the actual shooting.  For example, the psychiatrist had stated concerns about Holmes with the “Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment Department” at the University of Colorado.  However, the school didn’t take action and didn’t notify the police about the psychiatrist’s remarks.

Here is one aspect of the Aurora shooting that may be overlooked- that is, the interaction between psychiatric opinion and law enforcement.  Now, I’m not suggesting anything drastic like the Pre-Cogs in Minority Report, but this part of the discussion seems to be missing.  There should be a stronger link between law enforcement intervention and patients who may be exhibiting erratic or anti-social behavior.  In this case, earlier action by law enforcement may have been more powerful than any gun control laws (i.e., they might have found his weapon cache sooner).

Personally, I went ahead and watched the movie, but I did find myself checking the fire exits every once and a while for signs of an intruder.  I was able to enjoy the film, but once the movie was over I was reminded of the tragedy of the recent events.  After these events, I’m hoping that we can find ways to thwart possible attacks in the future.

Jay Rivera

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